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India’s 2019 election results were more than a ‘Modi wave’

Modi’s BJP party benefited from a number of advantages.

- May 30, 2019

After five weeks and seven voting stages, India’s national elections delivered a decisive win for an alliance led by the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP won 303 seats, and its alliance commands 352 seats in India’s 543-seat Parliament.

The BJP’s primary rival, the centrist Indian National Congress (Congress), won only 52 seats. India’s two left-wing communist parties fared even worse, with a combined five seats.

With consecutive and decisive victories, the BJP seems firmly established as India’s new dominant party, the pole around which politics is organized. The previous political era was defined by competitive multipolar coalition politics and was preceded by several decades of Congress dominance following India’s independence in 1947.

An expected victory with unexpected ease

This result was surprising but not shocking. Pre-election polls had predicted a BJP victory, but most had not anticipated this scale of dominance. Experts thought the incumbent government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi might take a hit because of its spotty economic record. Modi’s term was marred by insufficient job creation and declining commodity prices for farmers. Pundits also criticized Modi for a number of policy decisions, such as the sudden move to invalidate or “demonetize” most of the country’s paper currency in 2016.

Instead, the BJP consolidated its 2014 victory with a 2019 win littered with contradictions. Despite agrarian distress and recent farmer protests, the BJP’s strongest showing came from rural constituencies. Despite the government’s lackluster economic record, turnout increased in several of the party’s core strongholds. Despite boasting a higher share of winning candidates from privileged upper castes than its rivals, the BJP managed to knit together a rainbow coalition from across the Hindu caste spectrum.

A ‘Modi wave’? Not so fast.

While official returns tell us how the vote went, understanding why voters made their choices requires detailed national survey data not yet widely available. Yet post-election commentary is already rapidly converging on a two-word explanation: Narendra Modi.

Opinion polls showed the BJP leader retained a wide lead over Congress leader Rahul Gandhi throughout the campaign. Modi also has centralized power within his party to an unprecedented degree and ran a highly presidential campaign.

Voters may have even downplayed their economic concerns to justify voting for Modi. As elections grew nearer, one survey found fewer respondents reported prioritizing economic grievances.

Perhaps 2019 signals a personally popular leader powering his party to victory. Yet this “Modi wave” narrative is highly premature.

One frequently cited statistic in favor of this argument comes from a respected election survey, in which 32 percent of BJP supporters said they would not have voted for the party if Modi was not its prime-ministerial candidate.

This one figure is hardly irrefutable evidence — voters expressing loyalty to Modi tend to be the privileged Hindus most likely to vote for the BJP anyway. Their responses may indicate their enthusiasm for Modi, while overstating his sway on their vote.

The figure is not unusual for Indian elections. For example, the 2004 edition of the same survey reported comparable loyalty (29 percent) among BJP voters for leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The BJP lost that election — and no one spoke of a “Vajpayee wave.”

Follow the money

It also is hard to isolate the BJP win from the important structural advantages the party enjoys. The most obvious is money. The Association for Democratic Reforms, an independent elections think tank, tracked the incomes of India’s seven largest political parties in 2017-2018. They found the BJP’s donation income was more than twice the combined income of the other six parties.

The party also benefited disproportionately from electoral bonds, a shadowy campaign finance tool BJP introduced in 2017. The system allows donors, including foreign entities, to make anonymous donations of any amount. The move widened the BJP’s financial advantage: The party captured 95 percent of all electoral bonds in 2017-2018.

Consider the opposition

BJP had a second advantage: a weak opposition. The Congress campaign was beset with errors, including internal factional rivalries in crucial states. The Congress also rolled out key campaign promises too late to reach the ears of potential beneficiaries.

Such missteps enabled the BJP to dominate its chief rival across north India’s “Hindi heartland.” Political scientist Neelanjan Sircar calculated that the BJP won a stunning 92 percent of seats in which the Congress was its principal opponent, and just 52 percent of seats it contested against smaller, regional parties.

Watch the ground game

The BJP enjoys organizational advantages over rivals, as the political arm of India’s Hindu nationalist movement. This movement spreads its ideology through numerous grass-roots organizations, including welfare organizations, student and farmer wings, and militant groups that target religious minorities in the name of protecting Hindus.

My own research suggests that the BJP has long drawn upon the dedicated cadres of these movement affiliates to mobilize support during elections. A recent study also found the BJP’s 2014 victory was helped by an advantage in door-to-door canvassing. Campaign reporting suggests 2019 was no different.

Reducing the BJP’s victory to Modi’s personal popularity skirts the potential effect of the appeal to Hindu nationalism. One of the party’s winning candidates is a self-styled Hindu ascetic facing terrorism charges for plotting a bomb attack intended to target Indian Muslims.

BJP President Amit Shah promised the party would amend citizenship laws on communal lines to favor “Hindus, Buddhist and Sikhs.” Such appeals may have helped consolidate a Hindu vote for the party in key states.

Indian airstrikes inside Pakistan — after a February attack in Kashmir by a Pakistan-based terrorist group — possibly aided these efforts. Inciting nationalist sentiment against a Muslim-majority rival may have blunted economic dissatisfaction, especially with young Hindu voters.

How much each of these factors fueled the BJP’s win is not yet clear. The election’s consequences for India’s 175 million Muslims are clearer. The BJP’s strategy focused exclusively on appealing to Hindus. Relatively few Muslims voted for the BJP, and none of the party’s 303 members of India’s lower parliament are Muslim.

Correction: A previous version of this post said that none of the BJP’s 303 members in parliament were Muslim. It has been updated to note that this refers to the members of the lower parliament.

Tariq Thachil is an associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. His book, “Elite Parties, Poor Voters” (Cambridge University Press, 2014), examines the rise of the BJP among poor voters in India.